Goofy Best Friend

Scott Adams has a suggestion for overcoming bias:

When Dilbert launched in newspapers, the response was underwhelming. In the early years, it wasn’t a workplace strip. It was about Dilbert’s life in general. He just happened to have a job. I was surprised to learn, via my e-mail, that readers loved the relatively rare comics featuring Dilbert in the office. Personally, I didn’t think those were my best work. My ego told me to do it my way. My readers told me I was wrong.

What the hell do readers know? After all, they aren’t syndicated cartoonists, and I was, albeit in only a few dozen newspapers. But this time, fortunately, I ignored my ego, changed the focus of the strip to workplace humor, and it took off. …

I’ve come to call this ego-driven behavior the “loser decision.” I don’t mean it as an insult.  It’s an objective fact that life often presents us with choices where the comfortable decision leads nowhere and one that threatens your ego has all the potential in the world.

You need a healthy ego to endure the abuse that comes with any sort of success. The trick is to think of your ego as your goofy best friend who lends moral support but doesn’t know shit.

I don’t think it’s quite fair to be so down on comfortable decisions – discomfort is, after all, a cost.  But it is an upfront cost, and given our irrationally high discount rates, we are likely to understate the net present value of the decision.  Also, my experience is that people tend to consistently overestimate the amount of discomfort involved in doing something new, and once they start, it usually isn’t that bad.  (Which I have trouble seeing an evolutionary explanation for – any ideas?)

So I mostly agree with Adams, but my solution is a bit different:

Feeling good about yourself is useful because, well, it feels good. But tying that feeling to a specific role reduces flexibility by adding unhappiness to any option which changes that role.  So the broader the concept of what it is you feel good about, and the closer it is to "I feel good about being me", the better. 

For example, I am about to change roles at work, from being a software engineer to doing leadership development.  If my work-related positive self-image was "I’m a smart programmer!", my ego would have challenged the change, but since it’s more like "I’m a smart guy with a wide range of abilities who finds low-effort high-reward things to work on", it wasn’t an issue.

So nurture your ego, but keep it general.  And if you feel uncomfortable about a potentially rewarding change because it threatens your self-image, try to see if you can generalize the relevant aspect of your identity that includes the new choice.  Think of yourself as someone who helps improve the lives of others, not as a kindergarten teacher, or as someone who helps software work more efficiently rathr than a C++ optimization specialist, and you may find yourself going down rewarding paths you might otherwise have rejected.

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  • If there are many reasons to be uncomfortable with a choice, only one of which is that the choice threatens our ego, then we face the problem of determining whether it is ego-discomfort or some other discomfort in any particular case.

  • Nathan Iver O’Sullivan

    I too have had difficulty coming up with an evolutionary explanation for our “anti-new-things” bias. My current notion (please shoot it down if necessary) begins with the premise that new experiences are much less costly to children than they are to adults. As we age, we become ever more inhibited and ever more inclined to practice our old routines. (For the extreme cases, take the old man who does the same thing each day and the hyperactive child with a five second attention span.)

    In our ancestors’ environment, childhood and adolescence were developmental periods, and adulthood evolved to be a period to perfect and demonstrate skills rather than learn new ones. This was reproductively efficient, since adults needed to signal their fitness to mates, and showing off skills are more easily observed.

    I think the evolution of acne fits nicely in the same framework as well, though random mutation might sufficiently explain it.

    Finally, I urge Mr. Friedman to post more often–this is one of the best posts I’ve read.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    I too have had difficulty coming up with an evolutionary explanation for our “anti-new-things” bias.

    I see it as coming from the fact that most changes are likely to be a disaster rather than an improvement (if you have a complex system for hunting mamoths, a single change is more likely to result in no meat rather than more meat) combined with a sharply curtailled maximal utility – with little storage capacities and no monetary economy, a dramatic improvement in hunting rates is near useless, for instance.

    Thus the evolutionary optimal seems to be to avoid new things until forced into them.

  • Norman Siebrasse

    A variant on Nathan and Stuart’s points: when you’re young, you don’t know what you’re good at; as you get older you get more information and you tend to end up doing things for which you are naturally well suited. As an adult, you may not be doing the thing you to which you are absolutely best suited, and there may be a number of things you may be equally good at, but on the whole, a new activity is likely to go worse.

    With respect to generalizing as to your abilities — ‘I’m a smart guy’ rather than ‘I’m a smart programmer’ — the more you depart from exactly what you are doing now, the less information you have, and the more likely you are to be wrong in your generalization. For example, I like outdoor activities — camping, canoeing, hiking, mountain biking. A friend suggested I try white-water kayaking. I thought ‘I’m good at outdoor activities, it looks hard, but most things aren’t so bad once you try them,” so I gave it a try. Well, it turns out that I over-generalized — I’m actually not very good at activities requiring fast reaction times. In the end I didn’t bash my brains out or suffer permanent injury, but let’s just say that things didn’t go well.

  • Patri Friedman

    Robin – I think that self-awareness and the ability to introspect well are key to overcoming bias, and enable one to determine whether the discomfort is related to identity.

    Nathan – I agree that it has something to do with child/adult, and what in AI one would call “exploration vs. exploitation” periods. I don’t think I agree that adults were exploiting (using previously determined strategies) to signal fitness, I would argue more that it was just the correct thing to do. That there was little enough information around that by the time of adulthood exploration was no longer worthwhile.

    It’s worth noting that smart, creative people tend to be neotenous – the scientist’s “childlike sense of wonder”, so it seems like this exploration/exploitation balance is something that has changed, and that the evolutionary pressure now is towards more exploration.

    And thanks for the kudos – hopefully I’ll be posting more since my career change will have me thinking more about psychology.

    Stuart – I am skeptical of an explanation for adult anti-novelty that does not also explain childhood pro-novelty.

    Norman – That’s plausible, basically you are saying that exploration is useful until one has a certain amount of information, at which point exploitation becomes optimal. WRT to generalizing abilities, I was only talking about identity, or ego as Scott Adams called in. For the rational part of the decision (what am I good at?), I agree that we should not over-generalize. But often our emotions about decisions are not rational, hence my suggestion for manipulating them.

  • Mark Nau

    Similarly: when I was younger, my self-perception of “I’m a smart guy” meant, bluntly, “I know better than all of you.”

    Now, it means something closer to “I can find good ways to often get a good solution, and be able to adapt on the fly when it seems I’ve chosen poorly. And often that includes valuing someone else’s judgement more than my own.” In simpler terms, I guess I’ve tried to fold the concept of “wisdom” into my self-perception of what it means to be “smart.”

  • Mark

    Patri says: “I am skeptical of an explanation for adult anti-novelty that does not also explain childhood pro-novelty.”

    In turn, I am a little sceptical of the assumption which says childhood is pro-novelty. As many a school teacher / parent will tell you, there is nothing so conservative as a young boy.

    If I take your assumption about inquisitive young children as true, might it not be something to do with risk / reward ratio? Make a mistake as a child, and bar breaking an arm etc, the downside of any action is minimised by parental protection – which is not there when you are an adult – such that the tendency might be towards risk aversion.

    Great piece by the way – looking forward to more!

  • Anti-novelty: If you decide to go to a different Mall, the chances that you’ll step on a new-to-you species of snake, or inadvertently stray into the territory of a tribe you didn’t know much about with no reason to like you are slim. It’s an evolutionarily ridiculously safe world, but our fears haven’t quite adapted to this yet (which is where alcohol comes in, for many.) For example, native peoples greatly feared the dark (risking for occasional raids) and rarely ventured into it. Too many mishaps awaited them, and GPS wasn’t widely available. In those areas where risk is higher now (sexual experimentation arguably) our bias appears to be pro-novelty (relative to the actual risk.)

    As for childhood pro-novelty, you almost always have a parent who’s making sure you don’t kill yourself in those early years. (Although I’ve known one case where poor parenting resulted in tragedy.)